Artist Spotlight: Jenny Suen, Co-Director of The White Girl (SGIFF 2017)
Hong Kong filmmaker Jenny Suen has a strange relationship with her home country. Like many artists, she felt stifled growing up in the congested, business-centric city and wanted out. But upon moving to America for her studies, she felt a sudden pang of homesickness, and when she watched Wong Kar Wai’s In The Mood For Love for the first time, she was suddenly struck with how beautiful her own city was, and how much potential it had. That was the moment she decided to become a filmmaker.
In her debut feature film The White Girl, Suen shows off a very different side to Hong Kong, away from the towering skylines and instead moving to the fishing village of Tai O, almost like a piece of history where time has come to a standstill. In the film, Tai O’s beauty is given the first class treatment, brought out in all its surreal brilliance by both Suen and co-director Christopher Doyle, best known for his cinematography work on Wong Kar Wai’s films. With truly unique characters fighting the unending fight of gentrification, The White Girl is a mood film that perfectly encapsulates the importance of history and memory, and the many forms that Hong Kong takes on, a city of migrants and change.
We spoke to Jenny herself about how and why The White Girl came about, and what it was like to work with an esteemed filmmaker as Christopher Doyle. Read the interview in full below:
Bakchormeeboy: What was the inspiration behind The White Girl?
Jenny: I see the film as a kind of homecoming for Chris and I. I went to the states to study for 8 years and knew that whatever my first film would be, it would be about Hong Kong because that’s where I’m from and it’s such a big part of my identity even though I ‘ran away’. I came back to Hong Kong and I knew I wanted to do something, but I didn’t know what. So I wrote a short story called The White Girl which is very different from what you see in the film, but it’s also a love story set in a fishing village. I gave it to Chris and Chris said “oh, let’s make a movie” and I said ok. I told him “I’ll write the script and produce it” and he’ll shoot it but who will direct it? And he looked at me like it was a stupid question and he simply said “Well, we’ll do it.”
As a homecoming, it’s a film about hong kong but it’s about a fishing village. most people watch the film and it’ll be like oh it’s a film about a Hong Kong they’ve never seen, or a Hong Kong that most people don’t know. the Hong Kong that most people know is the city and neon lights and back alleys and the urban, cosmopolitan city but I think we chose to do a love story in a fishing village in many ways because we wanted to go back to where we came from. 250 years ago, Hong Kong was just a fishing village, but now, you’ll see that those people’s language, culture and the fishermen, they’re almost all gone. The fishing village becomes a metaphor for Hong Kong the city today, because many things have happened in the last few years for Hong Kong that points to a future in which we might meet the same fate as the fishermen.
What truly makes Hong Kong is not the 7 million people living there or the skyscrapers, but what makes a city unique is its spirit, the sense of freedom and the energy and if you take that away, people won’t have hope for the future. It sounds abstract, but when you think about it, people left china to come to Hong Kong, and the sense of migration and moving around all the time that’s what Hong Kong’s identity is. People came here to be free and in the future we might not be free.
Bakchormeeboy: How did you decide on the filming location of Tai O?
Jenny: We spent 5 years preparing for this film and we went to see every single village in Hong Kong. We didn’t go to Tai O till the very end because it was very far and it’s kind of a known tourist spot and everyone’s seen it. But when we got there we realized it really was the last fishing village of Hong Kong, with stilt houses and boats. It has a unique architecture that’s been preserved, showing how people have been living this way for hundreds of years, there’s still generations that live there, while most of the fishing villages are already emptied out. So Tai O was the perfect setting for our film.
Bakchormeeboy: What was it like to work with Christopher, and were there any conflicts during the filming process?
Jenny: I was first asked this at the Penang Short Film Festival, some kid comes up to me during a party and asked me, and I said “If you’re not careful, he’ll change your life.” And then I left.
As for conflicts, you know in history, there were two world wars? Well the same goes for The White Girl. The first world war happened during the scriptwriting process. Joe Odagiri says that Chris is the left brain and I’m the right brain, we’re one brain but during writing we’re fighting all the time, to the point where sometimes I felt ugh, I don’t even wanna continue. Shooting was like the armistice between the world wars, before the editing process later on.
When you’re shooting, you throw the script out. The script is just a blueprint, and probably some things don’t work and if you keep getting stuck on the script, you don’t see what’s happening in front of you and you’re not opening yourself to new ideas from the world around you. I heard this brilliant quote from legendary documentary maker Albert Maysles, and he always asks himself “was this the film you intended to make?” If it was the film you intended to make, then you didn’t listen enough. That makes sense because if I’m not engaging in discussion and conversation, then I’m just a dictator and that’s not how I wanna work.
Bakchormeeboy: How did you decide to cast Joe Odagiri and Angela Yuen?
Jenny: Joe’s character was always an outsider. We had never worked with him before, but I had seen many of his films. To me, someone’s filmography represents the choices this person has made in his life. I think that says so much about a person because there are many ways to live and some people might belong to a management company and only want to do big films, but the films Joe has chosen to spend his life doing, there’s so much creative risk and he’s worked with some brilliant East Asian auteurs and you just get the sense that he’s into acting. The White Girl was a low budget film and we’re living in one of these down and dirty BnBs by the sea, eating street food and it was exactly the character Joe plays in the film. To me, that is what being a star is about, coming from within and not because someone shines a spotlight on you.
For Angela, this was her very first film. But when she auditioned, I didn’t say anything at first, because I was shocked at how she really embodied the role. A script is just words, but when you see someone give it life, especially as a first time director, well, no one had done that for me before, and I was so moved that went home and cried for 2 hours.
Bakchormeeboy: When and why did you decide you wanted to become a filmmaker?
Jenny: When you’re growing up, all you wanna do is get out and see another world, especially if you wanna be an artist. Growing up in Hong Kong, it was so business-centric, my parents were businesspeople, I went to a nice American school and I just wanted to get away. I was so happy when I got to go to school in the US but i was also homesick and it’s an interesting feeling because you spend your whole life wanting to get out and when you leave you’re like ‘oh’.
So around then, I saw Wong Kar Wai’s In The Mood For Love for the first time, and when you see that film, it’s like I can’t watch anymore because the film has taken on a personal meaning rather than related to the film itself. The first time I saw it, I didn’t know Hong Kong was so beautiful, and it was the film that made me want to make my first film. Growing up, I didn’t watch many locally made films, and that film made me go ‘woah someone from Hong Kong made this, made it in Hong Kong. And I was made in Hong Kong, so it made me realize that my home was beautiful and could be that beautiful.’ I still get emotional talking about it even now, and for me, that film has become like a part of me.
Bakchormeeboy: What are the biggest challenges you face as a filmmaker?
Jenny: I think that once you’ve managed to raise enough money for your film, it becomes a question of being able to remind yourself everyday to believe in yourself. To be a director is to have someone tell you no every single day, from the people who you hope will give you money, to the actor who says I’m hungry, I wanna take a break. You gotta keep pushing, and if you don’t believe in yourself of the possibility of something, then it becomes an emotionally tough thing to go through that. My production designer, for example, couldn’t find a white rabbit with red eyes in the whole of Hong Kong. And I thought well that’s crazy, I’ve had like 50 rabbits like that when I was a kid but for a bunch of reasons they couldn’t find one, and I had to pull some strings to finally get one for a scene. When you want something that badly, you don’t take no for an answer.
Bakchormeeboy: What’s the next project for you, and is there anybody in particular you’d like to work with?
Jenny: I don’t want to go through World War III, so I am writing something, but something that’s secret and even Chris doesn’t even know about it yet. We’re also planning to remake a Chinese film with Angela Yuen in it, and hopefully soon to be confirmed.
For a future film, well, I’m weirdly obsessed with apocalyptic things, like earlier seasons of The Walking Dead (not anymore). Deep Impact, Armageddon and other similar popcorn movies. So one idea I’m considering is about these two girls after a nuclear armageddon, and they’re like the world is going bad so we’re going to be bad as well and they go on adventures. I thought about how if a doctor tells you you have one month to live, what do you do? There’s the sense of an ending, of time itself. It’s so grand and so big and so majestic and I wonder what it must be like to feel that for a real person.
And as for someone I want to work with? Tilda Swinton. Of all the actresses in the whole universe and all time, is an artist with a capital A.
SGIFF 2017 runs from 23rd November to 3rd December across various cinemas and venues. More information and ticket sales available from their website.